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Expectation vs Reality: Holiday Edition

The holidays are upon us. Although they are a time of celebration and connection, they may also be a time of stress and anxiety, especially for those in recovery from an eating disorder, or those with disordered eating. In regards to food intake, depravity is encouraged as people “save up” in preparation for a holiday meal, while the days following invite pressures to compensate for what we ate. Diets become a topic of conversation on social media and January 1st marks the beginning of the #NewYearNewMe anthem. We are invited to indulge one day, and withhold another. This can create a narrative of good vs. bad for even the most self-assured person. This rollercoaster of expectations can become fodder for an unhealthy relationship with food and weight. What if we retire these expectations? This might sound like a lofty goal, but adopting a new holiday gold -standard is entirely possible with a bit of self-reflection and intentionality. Below are some suggestions to navigate the holidays when it comes to food, movement, and our internal monologue.

Tips for coping with meals:

  1. No meal left behind. Our bodies are incredibly smart and will typically respond adversely to “saving up for the big meal.” Restricting caloric intake has two big consequences. First, eating fewer calories than your body needs can slow down your metabolism. Secondly, it also makes you more likely to eat beyond your place of comfortable fullness when you finally eat, which can result in physical and psychological discomfort. The antidote to a depravity mindset? Routine, balanced meals throughout the day, regardless of an upcoming celebration. But what exactly is a balanced meal? This generally means a plate that feels satisfying for you, and will hold you until the next eating opportunity. If you need a visual, try to picture a peace sign with three equal parts: starch, protein, fruits and/or vegetables. A source of fat is another important element to your peaceful plate. Fats help to satiate and satisfy you.

    1. A note on planning: If you are new to recovery and the concept of intuitive eating feels overwhelming, creating a flexible template for meals can be helpful. Imagine what a balanced plate looks like for you, remembering that this might look different for everyone. This might mean communicating with the host ahead of time. If that feels overwhelming, then consider the peaceful plate.

  2. Eat from a place of respect. From a young age, we are taught to categorize food as healthy or unhealthy. Your body is deserving of ALL foods and attuning to your body’s needs will help you determine what foods are appropriate for YOUR body. It can be helpful to close your eyes and ask yourself:, wWhat would my body want in this moment if there was no such thing as good and bad? Listening to your body in this way and trusting what it says is the ultimate form of respect.

  3. Autonomy. You are the boss, applesauce. Just because people may be trying one of each dish, doesn’t mean that you have to eat things you don’t want to. If someone is encroaching on a boundary (making comments about what/how much you’re eating), you have the authority to say “no thank you.” YOU get to decide what and how much you want to eat. Anyone who makes a comment about your choices is invading your boundaries.

  4. Create your own tradition. There are so many expectations surrounding holiday celebrations. If a particular holiday gathering is misaligned with your values, you have full permission to mix it up in a way that works for you.

Tips for supporting your mental health:

  1. Movement. Move your body in a way that feels good. This might span a spectrum from gentle stretching to a brisk jog. The intention is to engage with your body in a way that feels joyful, not punitive. There is so much diet-culture rhetoric in the fitness world that advocates for “burning it off” on food-centric celebrations. This couldn’t be further from our goal here, and is actually a very disordered thought process when it comes to movement. Can you connect with the type of movement that feels nourishing? This might be a new practice for you, especially if you’re used to a regimented movement routine. Amazing! You’re curious about doing this differently. We invite you to take a few deep breaths and check in. Ask yourself: what movement will feel nourishing at this time?

  2. Identify your triggers and speak up. Triggers abound during the holidays and discussions about food, weight, and fullness can be activating. Although it is easier to remain silent when people initiate conversations regarding these topics, staying silent can lead to further internalization. Consider sharing how these topics impact your well-being. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy there is an acronym called DEAR MAN (Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, remain Mindful, Appear confident, Negotiate), which can be an effective guide for navigating these difficult conversations.

  3. Boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries. Being with family during the holidays is HARD. Perhaps you’re anticipating some food-related comments that are bringing up anxiety for you, or feel worried that food will be a main topic of discussion. We invite you to set a boundary with your community prior to any event. What does this look like? This will be highly personalized to you, but perhaps a conversation, mail, or text explaining to your family where you’re at in your recovery at this time. It could be as simple as, “please refrain from any comments about what/how much I’m eating, or any body talk (mine or your own).” Sometimes setting boundaries can create tension. If limit setting creates a rupture, that does not mean you were bad or wrong to advocate for yourself - it means you are establishing a new expectation that the other person is not accustomed to, and that is a-okay.

  4. Self-care. When people think of self-care they often assume it implies adding a relaxing activity into your already packed schedule. That might be true for some people, but for others, it means removing something. During the holidays, this might entail bowing out of a holiday gathering, or saying “no thank you” to an event that is misaligned with your recovery goals. Sometimes saying “no” means saying “yes” to your mental and physical health.

Although the holidays can feel overwhelming, they don’t have to derail your journey. Whether you struggle from an eating disorder or experience dysfunctional attitudes around food and weight, curating the holiday experience to suit your journey is an important step towards putting yourself first. These suggestions for coping with holiday stress is not an exhaustive list. For more information about coping with the holidays, visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) or to receive support for mental health concerns call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

About the authors

Kathleen Someah, Ph.D is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY#31457) practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area. She specializes in treating eating disorders and body image disturbance, as well as other common mental health conditions. Dr. Someah uses both lived experience from her own recovery journey, as well as clinical training in evidence-based practice to inform her approach to care.

Rebecca Lee is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified intuitive eating counselor based in the Bay Area. Her speciality is guiding clients towards a more peaceful relationship with food, movement, and body image. Her intention is to bring back the joy in eating!

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